October 17, 2017 Sakamoto Emma

Jessica Scott Kerrin on the inspiration for The Things Owen Wrote

When I was an undergraduate in Alberta, I spent a summer working for the (then) Alberta Historic Sites Services as an interpreter. I was assigned to a newly opened site called Stephansson House near Red Deer (between Calgary and Edmonton). We opened the house each day and wore 1920s period clothing in keeping with the decade that the poet-farmer named Stephan G. Stephansson died and to which period the house was restored.

Stephansson House Provincial Historic Site, near Red Deer, Alberta

I spent countless hours in the Icelandic-Canadian’s homestead surrounded by his belongings, whiling away the hours between visitors by attempting to grow a garden, baking cookies on the woodstove or spinning wool. I didn’t get very good at any of it.

Three things stayed with me over the years. First, Stephansson’s attic had become home to an enormous bat colony. We could hear and smell them through the walls. Occasionally, one would escape and make its way into the living quarters, and I would be horrified to discover it when I opened the house in the morning. Even now, I’d know that smell anywhere.

The second was the tragic way in which one of Stephansson’s sons, Gestur, died. The sixteen-year-old was attempting to get home before an approaching thunderstorm but was struck by lightning while climbing over a fence. The ghostly photograph of that boy and his nearby grave marker haunted me as I stared out over the prairies where he lay.

The third was the extraordinary contradiction between Stephansson’s fame in Iceland and his relative obscurity in Canada, owing to the fact that he wrote all of his work in Icelandic.

I recently revisited Stephansson House decades later. Nothing had changed, of course, except me. Now that I was a writer, I could appreciate how hard it must have been for him to construct poems after working the fields while his family slept through the night. I had also spent a career working with curators, archivists and translators, all of whom I now understood as being critical to Stephansson’s legacy. With this deepened awareness, I felt I had the makings for my next novel. A research trip to Iceland confirmed it. I experienced firsthand the glaciers, waterfalls, turf buildings and the family farmland that Stephansson wrote so poetically about.

One special moment comes to mind. I carefully opened the now frail travel journal he had kept aboard during his emigration to North America, which had been preserved at the national archives in Reykjavík. I scanned his list of English words and their Icelandic equivalent. Stephansson was learning a new language en route to North America. It made me gasp to finally read him in English. It felt as if he was saying, “Hello, Jessica. Nice to see you again. Now, let’s get down to writing.”

Page from Stephansson’s travel journal, now housed at the National and University Library, Reykjavík, Iceland


The Things Owen Wrote

by Jessica Scott Kerrin

Owen has always done well, even without trying that hard. He gets As in school, is an avid photographer and knows he can count on his family’s support. But then Owen makes a mistake. A big one. And now he must face his fear of disappointing his entire family.

A last-minute trip to Iceland, just Owen and his granddad, seems like the perfect way out. For Owen’s granddad, the trip is about paying tribute to a friend with Icelandic roots. But Owen has a more urgent reason for going: he must get back the notebook his granddad accidentally sent to the Iceland archive. He can’t let anyone read the things he wrote in it!

The pair gets on a plane, excited to leave their prairie town for a country of lava fields, glaciers and geysers. However, as they explore Iceland, the plan to recover Owen’s notebook starts to spiral out of control. Why does Owen’s granddad seem so confused and forgetful? And can Owen really hide the truth of what’s in his notebook?

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